Berga-Elster ("Schwalbe V")

Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was the Berga-Elster subcamp of Buchenwald.

History

In the wake of increasing Allied bombing attacks, Germany’s fuel reserves sank to a dangerously low level. In August 1944, as part of the Geilenberg Program, the Armaments Ministry established the Petroleum Securing Plan, whose implementation belonged to the Kammler Staff. As part of this plan, under code name “Schwalbe V” (Swallow V), the Kammler Staff supervised the construction of an underground hydrogenation plant for Braunkohle- Benzin AG (Brown Coal-Gasoline AG, Brabag) in Zeitz in Berga an der Elster and appointed as project manager SS-Obersturmführer Willy Hack.

Hack was transferred to Berga on November 6, 1944, where his site manager and geologists tested the mountain rock for internal water channels. After Sonderinspektion I (Special Inspectorate I) reviewed drilling samples in Berlin, Brabag made concrete plans for the mining operation. 

Braun und Co. Schieferverwaltung, a cover name for Brabag-Zeitz, functioned as the owner and Reich trustee. The company employed mining companies, major mining and civil engineering firms, and additional workers from the region and from all over Germany. Brabag planned to excavate 18 interconnected tunnels in the Zikraer Berg mountain, for the location of the synthetic oil plant.

On November 13, 1944, the first 70 male prisoners were brought to Berga from Buchenwald. Among them were the future administrative staff and the prisoner physician. This group built the camp.1 The first large transport of 500 prisoners arrived on December 1, 1944, from the Buchenwald work detail “Wille” in Rehmsdorf near Zeitz, another Brabag camp.2 Further transports arrived on December 13, 1944 (1,000); December 30, 1944 (500); January 1, 1945 (298); February 26, 1945 (500); and March 15, 1945 (500).3 In all, over 3,300 prisoners were dispatched to Berga.

The largest prisoner groups were the Jews, who came from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany. Others were political, “work shy” (arbeitsscheu), and career criminals from all over Europe.

Most prisoners worked in the tunnels where they cleared and removed the detritus from explosions. The work was very hard and dangerous. They also had to work for various firms employed in the camp. The prisoners preferred assignment in the quarry, kitchens, or workshops, laying rail beds, or doing outdoor construction rather than working in the tunnels. A large group of 13- to 17-year- old boys in Berga mostly peeled potatoes in the prisoner and SS kitchens. Working in shifts, like the adult prisoners, some delivered food and coal briquettes from the city’s rail station to the camp and cleaned the SS officers’ rooms. The latter task was especially unpleasant.

Between November 28, 1944, and April 7, 1945, 313 prisoners died in the camps.4 Berga survivors reported deaths from shootings, disease, starvation, physical abuse, and work accidents.5 The overall number of prisoners did not diminish, however, because of replacement transports from Buchenwald. A roll call taken on March 11, 1945, established that there were 1,767 prisoners in Berga on that day.6

According to Hack’s secretary, Berlin ordered the construction staff to evacuate Schwalbe V during a long- distance call.7 Former prisoners testified to the subcamp’s closure, which took place between April 10 and 12. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) recorded the date as April 10, 1945, while the International Tracing Service (ITS)  placed the closure on April 11, 1945.8 On the morning of Berga’s closure, the SS ordered prisoners to form up in rows of five abreast and carry their blankets and bowls. Approximately 200 men unable to march were taken by train to Dachau.9 From Dachau, some  reached Seefeld near Innsbruck, Austria.

Fifteen hundred prisoners marched toward Theresienstadt-Leitmeritz, traveling in a southeasterly direction along the route Berga-Teichwolframsdorf-Gottesgrün-Reuth-Neumark-Hauptmannsgrün-Irfersgrün-Stangengrün-Obercrinitz-Bärenwalde-Albernau-Bockau-Sosa-Seinheidel-Breitenbrunn-Rittersgrün-Goldenhöhe-Gottesgab-Oberhals—a distance of 160 kilometers (almost 100 miles). Toward 9:00 PM on April 21, 1945, approximately 850 arrived in a snowstorm—the remainder had either fled or died.10 On the way they climbed a height of over 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) in the Erz Mountains. The final climb from Goldenhöhe to a point somewhere between Schmiedeberg and Oberhals was extremely difficult, as indicated by the many prisoners who died along the way. Other groups may have taken routes through the Erz Mountains via Zwickau and Chemnitz.

From this point, according to survivors, prisoners from Eastern and Western Europe were separated, and the Jews were also segregated.11 Small groups arrived by rail in Theresienstadt; by foot in Menetin,  Netschetin, and Preitenstein; and some went in a westerly direction along the crest of the Erz Mountains toward U.S. forces.

In 1974, the Cologne State Attorney’s Office investigated Lagerführer Rohr and other Berga SS. Its case was based upon an estimate of prisoner deaths in the Berga subcamp and during the death march but was halted on February 22, 1976, because Rohr had died on March 11, 1969; the whereabouts of the accused, SS- Unterscharführer Schwarzbach, were unknown; and other SS members could not be identified.12

After the war, Hack lived under his own name in Weissensand near Reichenbach in Saxony. Arrested in Zwickau on December 5, 1947, and interrogated at Schloss Osterstein, he was charged with causing the deaths of hundreds at Buchenwald/Berga because of his rigorous and demanding work methods. On September 22, 1948, under Allied Control Council Law No. 10 Article II3b, the Zwickau criminal court sentenced him to 8 years’ imprisonment and 10 years’ loss of citizenship rights. On April 23, 1951, the Zwickau criminal court, having retried Hack, sentenced him to death. He was executed in Dresden on July 26, 1952.13

[Note: American prisoners of war also worked at Berga, but they lived in a separate camp, not the Buchenwald subcamp. Their experiences will be addressed in a later volume of The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, which will cover camps run by the German military. —Ed.]

Sources

Berga is mentioned only a few times in the literature. Christine Schmidt has an essay on Buchenwald/ Berga-Elster in Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, eds., Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 3, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald (Munich: Beck, 2006), pp. 386–388. Wolfgang Birkenfeld covers the history of Brabag in Der synthetische Treibstoff, 1933–1945 (Göttingen: Musterschmidt Verlag, 1964). In the 1960s, Gerda Rutschmann, an Oberschule instructor in Berga, compiled a report on the working and living conditions of the prisoners in “Schwalbe V.” Between 1967 and 1991, numerous articles were published in the local Berga newspaper, the GrHe, for instance, the article by Ulrich Jugel, “Das Lager Schwalbe V in Berga-Ein dunkeles Kapitel aus der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus,” July 1991. Heike Kegel wrote a doctoral dissertation on Berga, “Die Versklavung von KZHäftlingen in der faschistischen Kriegswirtschaft und bei der unterirdischen Verlagerung der Treibstoffi ndustrie” (Ph.D. diss., Martin Luther University, Halle, 1990). Among the camps she researched was Schwalbe V, but aside from adding a few details, she relies heavily on Birkenfeld when writing about Berga, as does an article in Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, ed., Gedenkstätten für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus: Eine Dokumentation, vol. 2 (Bonn, 1991), pp. 660, 750, 801. The Buchenwald Berga subcamp is listed in ITS, Vorläufiges Verzeichnis der Konzentrationslager und deren Aussenkommandos sowie anderer Haftstätten unter dem Reichsführer SS in Deutschland und den besetzten Gebieten, 2 vols. (Arolsen, 1969), 1: 27.

Extensive material on the Berga camp and the transport lists may be found in AG-B and NARA (RG 242). Concerning the death march, material is held in the various regional archives in Germany, AG-D, as well as in the SpkA- KV, SpkACvK, and SDA-L. Material on the Berga construction site is also available in the ThHStA-G. Files containing the notices of prisoner deaths in the Berga camp are at BA-L. The criminal case files of construction manager Willy Hack are available through BStU. As the archives and prisoner testimonies found since 1997 have not been covered in any comprehensive way in the literature, it is now necessary to conduct new research on Berga. Christine Schmidt has in her possession numerous unpublished testimonies from surviving Berga prisoners.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How might the German population and the local community in Poland have been aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within?
  • Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials? What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?
  • How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?

Further Reading

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol 1, Early Camps, Youth Camps, and Concentration Camps and Subcamps under the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), ed. Geoffrey Megargee. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009.

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